Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat

Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat

Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat

Tales of Terror: Television News and the Construction of the Terrorist Threat


Based on an analysis of more than 200 evening newscasts aired during the first six years of the Reagan administration, Tales of Terror offers a detailed account of the ways in which news media escalate public panic about terrorism and encourage support for specific U.S. policy objectives, rather than build sympathy for terrorists. Dobkin explores similarities between news media and government portrayals of terrorism, combining textual criticism with an interpretation of official U.S. policy statements, and argues that government depictions and news presentations of terrorism reproduce an ideology that supports military strength and intervention.


As I watched the television accounts of the recent Persian Gulf War, I was mesmerized by the news stories and video images that danced on my screen. I read daily newspapers and weekly magazines, I listened to extensive radio coverage and academic debates, and I tried to consume every source of mediated information within my reach. As an educator, I introduced discussions about the conflict in my classes and spoke at public lectures and conferences about the relationship between television news and foreign policy. But few of these activities helped to quell the unease that had grown as I watched the networks struggle to provide live, dramatic coverage that would please most of their viewers, most of the time.

We did not fight any officially declared wars in the 1980s, but we did fight a war against terrorism. Terrorists became this country's archenemies, and the "scourge of terrorism" is still used as an instant justification for foreign policy gestures, funding for special programs, covert operations, and military intervention. As a public, we support these actions in the face of an enemy we do not understand and rarely see--except on television.

Television serves as the primary source of information about foreign affairs for most Americans, a situation that has prompted much research and concern. This book is my attempt to assess those concerns in the context of television news coverage of terrorism. Some of the findings may sound familiar, but others may cause readers to see the performance of television news (and incumbent administrations), particularly during times of foreign conflict, in a different light.

This book is not meant as an indictment of television, or even as a lengthy criticism of the American Broadcasting Corporation, the network that served as the focus for this study. It points instead to limitations of television journalism as currently practiced and the implications of that practice for our assessment of U.S.

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